Sunday, January 20, 2013

Central Unit not 100% closed: Targeting prison closures based on economic, budget benefits

The Austin Statesman's Mike Ward reported Friday evening ("Over a year after closure, state prison still runs some operations," Jan. 18) that, despite de-funding in the last budget, TDCJ's Central Unit in Sugar Land is not yet fully closed, though the prisoners there were moved to other units. The reasons won't surprise anyone familiar with the Central Unit's history - it was formerly the Imperial Unit, built to provide leased convict labor to the Imperial Sugar Company and one of the facilities at the heart of the agency's agricultural operations in the region, which are extensive.
Prison officials say moving out the convicts was the easy part, especially with excess capacity in other prisons. But it’s taken more time to shut down the other operations at the Central Unit, which served as a regional warehousing and distribution point for a variety of goods to keep running the more than two dozen other prisons in the area. Plus, officials said, the lockup farmed various crops on several hundred acres.

With the previous residents gone, convicts and guards had to be brought in from another prison about a mile away to continue those operations. ...

“It’s taken us a while to move those operations,” said Brad Livingston, executive director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. “Both were significant projects.”

A new warehouse is being built at the Terrell Unit, down the road to the south, and new agriculture facilities will be added at the Pack Unit near Navasota — at an additional cost of nearly $7.6 million.

The final closure date for prison operations at the Central Unit site? Probably in July, officials said, after the new warehouse and the ag operations are complete.

When prison operations finally cease, the site is to be turned over to the General Land Office to be sold. “We’re still waiting,” said Land Office spokesman Jim Suydam.
While I'd prefer the facility had closed more quickly so the budget savings could be more easily argued, it sounds like the delay won't affect plans to move forward with closing more prison units. "[L]egislative leaders and prison officials agree that additional closures are likely," Ward reported.

For my part, the Central Unit's economic role in the prison system's ag business was one of the reasons I favored it as a prime target for closure. Not only was Central's historic role symbolic, breaking it up would end some of the last remaining physical vestiges of the old convict leasing system, replaced to a lesser and far-less brutal extent in the modern era by in-house agricultural operations on the agency's vast real estate holdings. Grits isn't surprised it has taken longer than expected to untangle a century's worth of economic ties wrapped up in the Central Unit's operations, but I'm glad it's happening.

In general, criminal-justice economics requires a long view. Prisons take a long time to build and once built cannot be easily de-commissioned. The effects of raising or reducing already-long sentences may not show up in state budgets, in practice, until a decade out, but the failure to make that calculus has been the main reason why Texas prison budgets and populations ballooned. It took Texas four decades to get in the fix we're in and the ship of state turns slowly.

Notably, the two units Sen. Whitmire has suggested for closure - the Dawson State Jail in Dallas and the Mineral Wells pre-parole unit - are both operated by a private prison company, Corrections Corporation of America, and arguably simply ending a contract requires less wind-down time than closing one of the state's oldest units whose facilities were an integral part of their regional ag operations. (Grits should mention that these are the two units this blog predicted were most likely next on the chopping block back in August 2011.)

A big reason the Central Unit was considered "easy" to close was that the local chamber of commerce crowd wanted the land there opened up for development. A similar dynamic is the main reason why the Dawson State Jail is on the list. It stands on a site where the city of Dallas would like private developers to construct what's been dubbed the "Trinity River Project."

Looking strictly at property in a similar position vis a vis real estate development interests, Ward noted back in 2011 that the state might consider more prison closures in Fort Bend County: "a new high school and homes have popped up near the Jester I Unit. A new intermediate school and strip-center have opened just across from the Jester III and IV prisons. Custom homes, some valued at about $1 million, back up to the Vance Unit. Prison cotton fields and livestock sheds now sit alongside for-sale signs along Texas 99 that bisects the former prison farms."

OTOH, Huntsville ISD has found its property tax revenue choked off because of vast tax-exempt TDCJ holdings in Walker County. An economic argument could be made for targeted closures and property sell-offs there. Or, the Legislature could consider closing one or more of the rural units having the most trouble maintaining adequate staffing. If legislators decided to consider prison closures beyond Dawson State Jail and the Mineral Wells unit, those might be some of the logical options ripe for consideration, one would think.

Just as past Legislatures that approved Texas' prison expansions, authoring an array of new felonies and "enhancements," didn't have to budget the real, long-term costs of their policies at the time they enacted them, the economic benefits of de-incarceration won't be immediate, but in the long-term will be far more significant than just tinkering around the edges of the corrections budget.


Anonymous said...

Grits, has your bald ass ever been to Dallas? You are drinking too much of the bullshit kool aid being served up by "Dallas Officials" to you about the "Trinity River Project". Even if Dawson closes, the land adjacent to Dawson is still a view of the losers in the south tower. Along with numerous liquor stores and bail bonds companies and dreams of a tollway thru the trinity river bottoms. This is a delusion that folks in "charge" in Dallas think the people of Dallas want. Truth is, the street will always be Industrial blvd (You can't dress up a turd, a turd is a turd no matter how you present it), and will always have homeless living among the numerous easy options of their next government funded alcohol binge. Crowley court house and Lew Sterrett jail are going nowhere, no developer in their right mind would build anything next to the jail and courthouse. Just look at the calvatra bridge, "Dallas Officials" said this would be the next developed area hotspot of Dallas. Drive your bald ass up here and you will see that there is nothing being developed along the "Trinity River Project" side of this waste of money.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

In a regrettable freak of nature, 10:32, my ass may be less bald these days than some of the more visible parts of my anatomy, which for reasons that surpass my understanding you've been surprisingly focused on lately.

Regardless of where, in my middle age, I do or don't have the most hair, I'm not the main one who's been suggesting Dawson close in deference to the Trinity River project. Mostly it's been city manager Mary Suhm pushing the idea. Whether you agree or disagree, the City and the chamber of commerce crowd in Dallas would like to get rid of Dawson. And personal insults aside, IMO it never should have been built in the first place, so I'd like it closed whether any developer ever uses the land or not. I only noted the pro-development ambitions of locals as a parallel to the developers-want-it-for-something-else dynamic that helped spur the Central Unit closure.

King Creon said...

Simply put, Dawson was not built to be a prison. The facility is the result of a failed business venture. A co-ed population and flat stupid attempt to make the useless layout workable has fallen flat repeatedly. If Dawson did close, the main issue would be the relocation of the females. Whitmire did suggest building a new facility to replace it, and the best option would be to use the land that Hutchins State Jail already occupies. This process has the possibility of working out fine, but my hirsute ass has thought that before and been disappointed to the point of careless abandon. The law of averages supports that one day, a decision will be made which not only makes sense, it actually benefits some group other than the Legislature or private interests.

Anonymous said...

Tdcj has leased out all the farm land around Jester units and Central unit. Jester lll has security horses they do not ever use ( need to sell ). Jester l still has its pig operation. The pig lagoons a over filling into the ( Oyster Creek ) creek. At the pig barn off Hwy 99 , the inmates illegal restroom runs into a 55 gallon barrel. That runs into Oyster Creek when heavy rains cum. Jester 4 turn into a county hospital. But close the others. Jester 1 has a old brick plant that needs to be cleaned up over the high levels of asbestus. That leaks into Oyster Creek. Sell the land. TDCJ is waiting for one child to get hurt by a inmate. Then they will close.

Anonymous said...

In the 81st Legislative Session HB 3438 by Hodge provided the Board of Criminal Justice with permissive authority to transfer Dawson State Jail to the City of Dallas for a comparable facility within 20 miles of the Dawson Unit. The governor signed the bill into law effective immediately on June 19, 2009.

Sounds to me like deliberations and discussions are to recreate what has already been accomplished. Instead of bashing TDCJ, it sounds like actions need to be focused on the City of Dallas to get off their collective asses, produce what they lobbied for, and provide a comparable facility.

Why is not Mike Ward of the Austin Statesman or some other media/newspaper organization asking the City of Dallas what THEY are waiting for and to put up or shut up!!!!!!

Anonymous said...

Additional comment from Anon. 1/22/2013 4:11 P.M

Back on the subject of closures based on economic and budget benefits. I am not against closing units and not an advocate of privatization but think a unit in Dallas does not meet the goals of the reason to close a unit. Dallas has not had any major problems (i.e. staffing, water, sewage), which has depopulated numerous units in the panhandle and South Texas. These are the units that pose a threat to the physical safety of other inmates/staff and the public. In addition, these units have caused hardships for the local citizens in providing costly infrastructure to support the units. Transportation cost to supply goods/services and transportation from Huntsville to and from these units is astronomical. IMO, one or more of these units should be considered for closure and not a unit in the Dallas or surrounding area.

I agree with a previous poster concerning the Dallas Trinity River Project and points they made. Corruption with city officials here in Dallas with developers has the prior mayor protem and others in federal prison for kickbacks. In addition, a current city council member is under federal investigation for corruption, money laundering and kickbacks from developers. Just Google the names Don Hill or John Wiley Price to get a small snapshot of some of the corruption of City Officials here in Dallas.

Scott, you mentioned Mary Suhm, City Manager of Dallas pushing for the closure. As stated, a law was signed by the governor in 2009 authorizing the closure of Dawson State Jail. The City of Dallas has large tracts of surplus land they could use to fulfill the land swap. The City of Dallas is now in the final stages with a developer for a land swap plus 18.9 million dollars for a tract of land two blocks from Dawson where reunion area once sat. Hell, the city could use that money to procure the land Dawson sits on if that was truly their objective.

With the prior history of the City of Dallas, corruption and developers, I think the Legislature should take a comprehensive look before closing a unit in the Dallas area.